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Manchester United miss Roy Keane the footballer, not the caricature bully

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Fans yearn for United’s greatest ever captain, but it is Keane’s standards that should be missed, not his rage

RAUL/MANCHESTER UNITED - REAL MADRID 2:3 Photo by Andreas Rentz/Bongarts/Getty Images

It’s the most outdated trope in football:

‘What this dressing room needs is Roy Keane to come in and sort out Jesse Lingard.’

Angry terraces have always been the last hiding place for showy manliness, machismo, and would-be hooliganism. People might have become ‘woke’ but by 3:15pm on a Saturday, when Jesse Lingard hasn’t touched the ball and is on the floor clutching his arm looking to be substituted, these same people often regress to a Jim McDonald level of enlightenment.

There are two big problems with the Keane-Lingard fallacy.

Firstly, what does it even mean? If we’re going to be honest, it means: I want Roy Keane to come in and kick the shit out of Jesse Lingard if he acts up.

We’re not talking about Keane returning to relive the ‘96 FA Cup Final or Highbury ‘99. We’re talking the other side of his game. Something more visceral.

Keane and Southgate. Keane and Veron. Keane and Blomqvist. Keane and Haaland.

Are we actually comfortable with this?

Elements of football are being phased out with incidents such as these among them. Peter Beardsley and Kevin MacDonald have been castigated for bullying in recent years. For all the enlightenment of people and the evolution of football on a grander scale, are we really comfortable with walking into Old Trafford and immediately harking back to a time where threats and actual violence were a feature of both football matches and dressing rooms?

Not that Roy Keane or his threats would necessarily motivate Lingard; but it would allow supporters a chance to eek out their own vicarious desires to see players ‘punished.’ Society now celebrates those who confront their bullies, rather than aggressors like it once did. When stories leaked from the Republic of Ireland camp about Keane verbally abusing Harry Arter in training, Keane was the one vilified.

Tiger Woods’ ability to see off opponents and win every battle saw him become the greatest golfer of his generation. But that level of single-minded determination is dying out and we now have the benefit of hindsight to appreciate just how damaged Tiger Woods was. For all that we yearn for Rory McIlroy to develop a little more of that killer instinct as his career drags on, we grudgingly accept that McIlroy probably lives a much more rounded, happier life than Woods ever did.

Times change and we should probably accept that sport does too. Similar to Bryan Robson bringing the players to Paddy Crerand’s pub for team bonding on a Tuesday, the notion that a player should be pinned to the wall for the sake of a bad pass is outdated and not accepted in any sphere of life anymore; so why should it be accepted in football?

Some supporters hang onto the romanticism of hard man antics, hoping they have not yet been eradicated from the dressing room. It’s fine if we don’t see it, right? Much like Manchester City’s fans’ relationship with their owners and human rights violations, if we don’t see it, it’s okay?

Which then brings us to the saddest element of the Keane-Lingard fallacy. While supporters want to expound the legend of Roy Keane, using him as a proxy threat for Jesse Lingard badly undersells the Irishman. Keane was a tough bastard, but football has always been full of tough bastards.

What separated Keane was his sheer brilliance on the field. Alan Hansen didn’t laud Lee Bowyer or Vinny Jones upon their retirements. It was Roy Keane who Hansen held above Steven Gerrard, Patrick Vieira, Frank Lampard “or anyone else” because of his consistency over a space of four to five years, a time in which he rarely had a poor game.

The Keane-Lingard fallacy undermines the Irishman’s legacy, with fans wishing some type of proxy revenge on an underperforming footballer. Anyone can be a hard man. Keane was a phenom, but is now caricatured as a comic villain who would put the likes of Lingard in his place. If a player doesn’t play well on a consistent basis, they are simply not good enough and should have no role at Manchester United.

What we should aspire to at Manchester United, are the footballing standards set by Roy Keane.

Newcastle in December 1995. Juventus in 1999.

Roy led by example. It might be an evolved game but you still want tough players. You don’t want snowflakes. You want players who wouldn’t shirk in the face of a bollocking. The Irish players came off the field in 2000 delighted after drawing 2-2 away with Holland but Roy was disgusted knowing that they had thrown away the lead.

And this is what should be aspired to at Old Trafford, not the sight of Roy Keane berating Gary Neville or chasing Andy D’Urso around the pitch. The visceral elements of Keane’s career — to which the Lingard threat alludes — are now less heralded or relevant in the modern game.

What does remain relevant — and abundantly lacking at Old Trafford — are the standards of Roy Keane. We have surpassed the moment at which dressing room threats could be used to motivate players, and now our metric is much more straightforward.

And if a player doesn’t meet the standard, he can always go play in Serie A.